Welcome to issue nine of the Communist History Network Newsletter. Although the submission deadlines for each of the twice-yearly issues of the Newsletter will remain broadly the same, the editions will now be dated as 'Spring' and 'Autumn', allowing the editors a little more leeway with production dates.
Distribution of the Newsletter will continue in its present paper and e-mail formats, but work is also beginning on the construction of a website which, we hope, will contain a searchable archive of all previous editions as well as an on-line version of each current issue. Full details will be published in the Spring 2001 Newsletter, but readers are welcome to contact us in the meantime for further information. The deadline for the next issue is March 30 2001.
LEN WINCOTT: John Horsfield has been commissioned to write the entry on Wincott for the New Dictionary of National Biography. John has a lot of information regarding Wincott's involvement in the Invergordon Mutiny in 1931, but would like to hear from anybody who can provide further details of his relations with the CPGB and his experiences in the USSR, where he spent twelve years in a labour camp (1944-56) and died in 1983. Please write to: Dr John Horsfield, 2 Poplar Villas, The Crescent, Manchester M19 3AJ.
WORKING CLASS MOVEMENT LIBRARY: Many readers will know that the Working Class Movement Library in Salford has extensive collections relating to British radical and labour movements in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. These include important archival, oral history and printed materials relating to the British Communist Party. The library is now producing a regular e-bulletin and anybody wishing to be added to the circulation list should contact: email@example.com
PEOPLE OF A SPECIAL MOULD: international conference on biographical and prospographical approaches to communist history, University of Manchester, 6-8 April 2001. The final programme for this conference is to be confirmed in December and we are currently unable to accommodate any further offers of papers except in the event of withdrawals. There are however a limited number of places for others wishing to attend the conference. Further details, including the full provisional programme, can be found on the conference web page. Alternatively, enquiries can be addressed to the conference administrator Linda Lawton who is also maintaining a reserve list of additional possible paper givers.
INTERNET RESOURCES: Allison Drew (whose book on the South African left, Discordant Comrades, is reviewed in this issue) would like to draw the attention of Newsletter readers to an internet listings directory that she maintains containing 'a variety of links helpful to those doing research on socialism and popular movements in different regions of the world.' Categories include 'popular movements', 'women's movements', 'international and regional resources' and 'South African politics, culture & society'. Further recommendations of additional web sources in these areas are welcome. Access to the directory is available through Allison's homepage at the University of York.
Responses and Comments
Jean Jones's review of Claudia Jones, A Life in Exile
I am very grateful for Jean Jones's very thorough review of 'my' book on Claudia Jones [Newsletter, July 2000]. I use the quotation marks because there are chapters in the book by Donald Hinds and Colin Prescod, and hence their names should have appeared on the book as joint authors.
I wish to take issue with some of Jean's comments. Surely, it should not have taken the rise of fascist and racist organisations and their murderous rampages in the mid-1950s, for the CPGB to take up the issue of racism. The issue had been there for a long time; the National Minority Movement was well aware of it, for example, over twenty years previously. Furthermore, the Comintern had castigated the party for not having dealt with its 'white chauvinism', also in the 1930s. The Black members received some support from the local party in their anti-racist struggles in Cardiff in the 1930s. And one only has to look at the imperialist post-war statements by party leaders, which continued to see the colonies as providers of primary produce and consumers of British manufactured goods, to understand just how ignorant the party leadership was of the issues of imperialism and racism.
Yes, Claudia did arrive at a problematic time in the party's history. But one only has to look at the welcome John Williamson received, and his incorporation in the party structure, to understand just how much Claudia was sidelined. Williamson, whose status in the US party was, I believe, lower than Claudia's was not given a menial job as a typist!
Yes, by most accounts, Manchanda was a difficult person. But Claudia's association with him did not begin for some time after her arrival — and her ill-treatment by the party was immediate, except for the aid she received with finding accommodation and with immediate hospital treatment.
That Manchanda did not permit the party to erect a gravestone to Claudia may have been churlish. But given how he would have understood the party's treatment of Claudia, one can surely understand that he did not want to permit the party to 'claim' her after her death!
I am glad that Jean found an obituary, which I had obviously somehow missed. Mea culpa. I shall have another look. That I missed Williamson's oration I can understand, as I would not have looked at theWorker two weeks after her death.
I wonder whether Jean or other researchers can tell me where to look for evidence of the CPGB's support for Fenner Brockway's efforts to introduce an anti-discrimination bill, or its early work with the MCF [Movement for Colonial Freedom] (ie before it took it over — as I have been given to understand) and with trade unions over racial discrimination?
Robert Service, A History of Twentieth
Century Russia, London, Penguin, 1998.
Allison Drew, Discordant Comrades — Identities and Loyalties on the South African Left, Aldershot, Ashgate, 2000, ISBN 0 7546 0195 1, pp309.
Allison Drew offers a detailed and absorbingly vivid account of the development of 'the left' in South Africa over the first half of the last century. Recognising 'structural parameters', Drew insists that there were choices and decisions, not a simple preordained linear process constituting that history — 'that events did not have to unfold as they did.' In her conclusion, she gives particular weight to two major examples of 'opportunities which may have been lost'.
In September 1931, several members of the Communist Party of South Africa (CPSA) were expelled. Amongst them was Sidney Bunting who had been central to attempts to orientate the party to black workers. Drew raises the real political option of those members forming a 'new socialist body'. In 1928 Bunting had founded the League of African Rights (LAR) with a programme of 'both democratic and national liberation components'. This was an 'organisation of ordinary people — as opposed to the then tiny ANC [African National Congress], which was dominated by chiefs and other political and economic elites'. In October 1929, the Comintern ordered its disbanding 'just as [it] … was gaining ground'. Drew appropriately raises the question of what might have developed without the dissolution.
Beyond her primary focus on the left, Drew's work emphasises that the history of the ANC is embedded in the struggle of different classes and development amongst different alternative organisations, none of which had a preordained mass base. If for those reasons alone, her history is to be welcomed at a time when the history of struggle in South Africa is sometimes rewritten as the history of the convergence of the anti-apartheid pragmatism of capital and the anti-apartheid struggle of the masses, both expressed in the ineluctable rise of the ANC in order to take the nation forward in the struggle for international competitiveness.
Her tendency is to move from developments inside the left to the broader movement of resistance, to the working class. This means that for the reader unfamiliar with the history of struggle in South Africa, organisations and events are sometimes encountered in a jarring way, before they are later outlined with greater detail and information. More importantly, it expresses a key aspect of Drew's approach — the tendency to focus her explanations of intra-left developments on intra-left developments (whether local or international), rather than issues about relating outwards to the workers' struggle.
Welcoming Drew's insistence that the historical process involves options, I have to say that I find her application of that insistence less convincing. She is right in insisting that the examples highlighted earlier, amongst other possibilities, posed real historical options; that what happened was explicable, but not preordained. But a recognition of that needs to go further. Bunting chose both to obey the Comintern directives and not to form (or join) a new socialist 'organisation'. What is at issue here are questions of theoretical perspective, political vision and principles in terms of which real historical alternatives were identified and chosen (or not chosen). Central then is political judgement and the bases on which this is made. The fact that Drew (as I) clearly would have preferred different judgements does not define Bunting's out of existence as judgements themselves. True, as Drew insists, there were impositions of a destructive 'line' and policy zigzags. These were characteristics of the Stalinisation (rendered by Drew as Bolshevisation) of both the Comintern and the CPSA. Real political alternatives were concretised in the situation around a whole set of inescapable questions: What would the policy of the LAR have been? What form of organisation would Bunting have formed? What policies would it have pursued in relation to the different and sometimes conflicting class interests amongst blacks? What policy would it have adopted in relation to the 1935 popular fronts? Would it have pursued a working class united front instead? In opposition? How would it have dealt with the relations between black and white workers? Would it have, like the CPSA, tried to end a wave of strikes in 1943 in support of the war effort? How would it have related to the Stalin/Hitler Pact? The international Left Opposition? Would it have supported the All African Convention (AAC)? The ANC? Neither? This set of issues emerges, not as simple speculation, but because they were posed in the situation. As such, these — and others — were precisely the issues on which 'the left' was making political choices — different political judgements. The existence of alternatives was being reflected in the political discord which she seems to bemoan as unnecessary and imposed.
Drew makes a welcome contribution to that too limited historiography which does not reduce 'the left' to the CPSA and does not reduce the politics of the CPSA to its official positions. Her work takes us into tensions and differing political tendencies inside the CPSA and to left politics, primarily trotskyist, outside and in opposition to the CPSA. She gives appropriate weight and detailed attention to a range of organisations of struggle including the National Liberation League, the Non-European United Front, and the AAC. Her work is filled with information constituting a vivid picture of many aspects of the organisations and individuals self-identifying as socialist. But what constitutes identity as socialist or left? Drew provides detailed information on the left in relation to issues of theory, programme, practice and relations to the working class, but seems to regard self-identity as largely sufficient (although she draws her own implicit lines, excluding some of the racists of the SA Labour Party). Despite the empirical detail which she brings in relation to the struggle of workers and the relationships of socialists to that struggle, there is a tendency to focus primarily on socialist identity as being constituted in the ways in which self-identified socialists relate to each other. The problem for Drew, highlighted in her title, is discord amongst 'comrades'. By implication, the solution is accord and people who self-identify as socialists could have been loyal to each other, rather than what she sometimes trivialises as doctrine. In the answer of unity, however, is the set of questions to which different chosen answers historically led to real disunity. Sidestepping issues of 'doctrine', however apparently attractive, merely means reposing them at another point. With whom would there have been accord? On what basis? To do what? In struggle for what and against what? We are returned to the same types of political questions around which there were different political choices being made.
As evidenced in the examples above, Drew points to ways in which Comintern orders from 1929 onwards interfered with the development of a more 'advanced tendency' inside the CPSA (linked to Bunting). She has earlier provided us with material allowing us to see how the Bolshevik revolution and the politics of internationalism promoted precisely that development in an earlier period. South Africans in struggle have shared the support of probably the most extensive solidarity movement in human history. At a time when 'international' appears meaningful only as the prefix for competitiveness, there is a particularly acute need to search history past and present for those examples of a different, enriching proletarian alternative of crossing capitalism's national boundaries. There is a well-trodden path along which the hope of marxist and proletarian internationalism is analytically reduced to the foreign policy dictates of the Soviet bureaucracy. If the description seems to mirror the actual degeneration of the Comintern, it is regrettable that Drew does not allow for the real historical alternatives posed in the situation, tending to portray that degeneration as itself ineluctable and preordained — the problem of marxist internationalism per se.
Drew provides us with a valuable resource in coming closer to the history she studies. Despite my reservations about aspects of the underlying approach, I believe her work should be welcomed and used as a richly documented, detailed and comprehensive contribution to the exploration of the history of the left in South Africa. Notwithstanding its particularities, the struggle in South Africa throws up issues faced by the left, workers and oppressed people internationally. For that reason, and because the struggle in South Africa belongs to workers and progressive people throughout the world, her work is also a valuable resource for those whose primary focus of interest may not simply be the (too) small left in South Africa in the first half of the last century.
David P Shuldiner, Aging Political Activists: Personal Narratives from the Old Left, Praeger, Westport, Conneticut, 1995, ISBN 0 275 95045 X, pp304.
In Aging Political Activists David Schuldiner presents a series of themed interviews with four former members of the Communist Party of the United States (CPUSA) all of whom were active during the early Cold War era and all of whom are now well into their retirement years. Schuldiner's intention is to examine, through their own testimony, the development of these activists' notions of self — exploring how their identities, allegiances and senses of belonging have been formed, sustained and developed through decades of committed political work, both inside the CPUSA and without. Although published in the US some five years ago, this work of exploratory communist oral history appears little known on this side of the Atlantic. 
Introducing the interview transcripts he has gathered, Shuldiner suggests (importantly, if uncontroversially) that it is necessary to see the formation of a person's identity as a complex, dialectical and open ended process; as something which has to be conceived of as plural in essence — a multi-faceted sense of self upon which many influences are brought to bear. In the evolving identities of these lifelong political activists, Shuldiner argues that the critical senses of self that have clashed, merged and competed for pre-eminence at any given time are those of political, ethnic and religious affiliation, and work status — whether in paid in employment or unwaged and voluntary labour. All of these are further conditioned by the individual's experience of the ageing process and the perception they have of the developmental stage which their own life appears to have reached.
Although this methodological chapter covers its ground effectively, it does reveal some important limitations in approach. Because Schuldiner's primary concern is with the with 'public' arena of work and politics, he is less attuned to the influence that familial and other close personal relationships might be seen to exert in the shaping and maintainence of an individual's sense of identity and self-worth. Less easily accounted for is the minimal attention paid to the wider social, economic and structural contexts into which people are born, or the under-developed appreciation of the distinctions between what are potentially very different types of identity — positive and negative, or voluntary and compulsory, for instance — which is presented. Molly Andrews' 1991 study of the 'lifetimes of commitment' of a variety of elderly political activists in Britain offers a more confident and comprehensive discussion of these sorts of issues. 
The 'micro-study' of the life and work of CPUSA members in Connecticut that Schuldiner goes on to present remains, for these reasons and others discussed below, something of an uneven work. Full transcripts of all interviews collated in this research together comprise the bulk of the book, and these rich, candid and revealing narratives communicate a great deal about these interviewees' political and other life experiences. Interwoven in these oral autobiographies are reflective moments in which the interviewees are encouraged to disentangle the themes of commitment, belief, self-perception and presentation, and to think through the continuties and disruptions in their own sense of self-identity.
Any oral historian engaged in the collection of testimony from political activists of whatever hue, through the near-mandatory format of the 'semi-structured interview', can but empathise with the difficulties involved in trying to transpose abstract research questions into meaningful and productive personal encounters — especially ones which ensure that neither interviewer nor interviewee feels frustrated or badly served. Schuldiner is careful to include many descriptive and factual questions, and is clearly aware of the need to allow his interviewees sufficient space in which to communicate issues and events of particular importance to them. Yet when turning directly to his research concerns he sometimes poses questions that even the more articulate and self-aware of interviewees might struggle to answer intelligably. He asks — to take one of the more jarring examples — one interviewee to describe 'a sense of your evolving self, more specifically, your core self' in a question addressing the significance of a series of life changes.
Schuldiner's recognition that the 'identity' projected in a life history interview is, ultimately, a narrative 'construction' in which both interviewer and interviewee are collaboratively engaged, leads him to two important conclusions, neither of which seem wholly satisfactory.
Firstly, his argument that '[o]nly by examining the interviews in their entirety can one fully appreciate this process' (p5) is not an immediately self-evident one. It does, however, account for the editorial decision to include verbatim accounts of all of his interviews — something which leaves the reader rich in testimony but somewhat poorer in commentary and analysis. Secondly, Schuldiner's own efforts at 'deconstruction' are not entirely successful. He offers his interviewees the chance to revisit the recordings made during their initial interview session, to reflect anew on the testimony offered and the 'presentation of self' projected. In so small a group it then seems problematic that not all the interviewees take up this opportunity. Though one of the four does make some revealing comments about the sense of 'regret' he first communicated, Schuldiner does need to demonstrate why such exercises in self-critique, however instructive, can be relied upon to reveal purer 'truths' rather than newer 'constructions' in place of the old.
Although, given the book's focus, it is understandable why the author has forgone a contextual, historical chapter — locating his interviewees within the American communist and left movement's own timeline — he might still have described his method of interviewee selection more fully. All four of these former communists grew up, settled and were first politically active in Connecticut. All four were from jewish backgrounds. Each of them had quit the ranks of the CPUSA by 1960. All four interviewees have remained friends or close acquaintances — indeed, two of the four are husband and wife. None of which has meant that their lives have evolved in a uniform pattern. Diversity is particularly apparent in the areas of work and employment, the levels of political activity sustained within the party and left movement, the strength of secular jewish identity and the importance afforded it, and the precipitating reason for each individual's break with the Communist Party. Yet, as Schuldiner seeks to make few generalisable conclusions from his analysis of their testimonies, it might have enriched his approach to have included, for example, the voice of a 'senior' still attached to the party now mourning the death of its patriarch Gus Hall, or that of an elderly CPUSA member whose allegiance to the communist tradition was not broken until the traumas of 1989-91. Such voices would have provided different perspectives on the inter-relationships which tie together the experiences of ageing, commitment, belief and self-identity among those who have spent their political lives within the milieu of the 'old' American left.
As a collection of extended life testimonies this is a useful addition to the 'new' historiography of American communism. Schuldiner's thoughtful concluding observations on each individual's life choices are also lucid and well measured. As a study of the dynamics of ageing and identity among western communists or left-wing activists more generally, however, it makes for a less compelling read.
I am aware only of the review by
Dan Weinbren in Oral History, Spring 1996, and would welcome other
Molly Andrews, Lifetimes of Commitment: Ageing, Politics, Psychology, Cambridge, CUP, 1991.
Andy Croft (ed), A Weapon in the Struggle: The Cultural History of the Communist Party in Britain, Pluto Press, London, 1998, ISBN 0 7453 1209 8, pp218.
The story of communism and culture in Britain was very much one of discord, crowned by far less achievement than their combination merited. Much of the record of frustration can be found in this collection of essays brought together by Andy Croft, a writer and, more surprisingly, by trade a teacher of poetry in Teeside schools. His introduction, like the book's title, poses a highly relevant question. Unlike any other British party, the CP 'always took its cultural work very seriously', and put immense effort into it. Yet it never reached a proper comprehension of what politics and culture had to do with one another, and was too apt to fall back on a formula congenial to Moscow. Culture was 'a weapon in the struggle', its acolytes were only in need of training and discipline, under party direction, to form a useful corps in the army of progress.
Croft very rightly rejects this crude, military-style conception. His own essay here (the eighth) contains a great deal of enlightening detail about how things kept going wrong. It is called 'The Boys Round the Corner: The Story of Fore Publications' — the latter representing the cream of the party's literary and intellectual strength, while the first five words disguise the party leadership, self-immured in its fortress in nearby King Street. Not all of its members were impervious to the magnetic spell of words. This may have been truest of the Scots. We have heard from Alison Macleod, who spent some years in the Daily Worker office, how keen an ear its editor J R Campbell had for correct and impressive language. Scots had been reading their Bibles until not long since, and their commoners had been cut off for fewer centuries than their brethren in England from times when people, even though deeply divided by class, were not yet conscious enough of this to be much divided by culture.
But in Britain generally by this time it was easier for 'workers by hand or brain', as the party liked to call them, to come together politically than poetically. Their language of belief could be — as formerly in religion — the same, but their languages of feeling were very far apart. One felt the other to be clumsily insensitive, the other felt that he was being offered too much over-subtlety with too little meaning. As for the leaders, their star was in the east, and their great teacher was necessarily Joseph Stalin, whose philosophy was one of getting things done rather than talking about them.
Literature was the most fertile field for cultural work, and also for disagreements about how it should be done. Its most important form had for long been the novel. Fore Publications was set up in the early l930s, as a rallying-point for radical writers indignant at the way Britain was being led or pushed. Their influence was making itself felt in all the progressive movements that were being set afloat in those years. Among them was Left Review, edited by Randall Swingler — the outstanding figure in what was to become a tug of war between men of the pen and party bureaucrats. Left Review closed in 1938, and Fore Publications, again with him as its chief guide, took its place. It began with pamphlet-length 'Key Books', which repeated the success of the Left Book Club by selling nearly half a million copies in their first year. Even poetry was showing that it could play a part as a bridge between the political left and the intelligentsia. King Street on the other hand was soon insisting on playing the part of censor, and after the War this became insistence on the current controversies surrounding Zhdanov and Lysenko being handled as Moscow required. New magazines — Our Time, Arena — could still mobilize a sparkling array of contributors, home-bred and foreign, not all of them party members. They failed, because of pressures from King Street as well as those of the Cold War launched by America and its satellites. They, like Fore Publications, were 'too political for literary London and too literary for the Communist Party' (p159).
A novelist of that era, James Barke, is introduced by H Gustav Klaus as a 'True Scot', though unlikely, Klaus concedes, to be known to many readers outside Scotland today, or to be thought of in his own land as an equal of Neil Gunn and Lewis Grassic Gibbon, as he hoped to be. He was country-bred, from the Border, and always a staunch defender of nature and her rights, but his job came to be that of a clerk in a Glasgow engineering firm. He joined the party in 1932 or 1933, and stayed in it until his death in 1958. He began with half a dozen plays, and then wrote in quick succession five novels. A point of interest is his gradual drift towards a feeling that the happenings of the modern world have been too gigantic for any novel to throw its cloak over. Something like this may be the reason why so many novelists have turned inward, to sex-psychology, in search of pasture. Barke turned instead to an autobiography and a six-vo1ume fictionalized account of Robert Burns and Jean Armour. He had a growing family to cope with, always a handicap to artists with no income of their own.
Daughter of a Harrow schoolmaster, Sylvia Townsend Warner had a very different start in life. Fascism had a knack of rounding up into the same fold a multitude of apparently incongruous men and women. Maroula Joannou holds her up as a refutation of various false picturings of the l930s; as an example for instance of how many women, as well as men, were active in the cause of Spain, and in many other struggles of that turbulent decade. She was an effective public speaker, and a poet as well as novelist; she shared with many communist intellectuals of her time a 'seemingly limitless energy and indefatigable optimism' (p89).
Another woman writer, Hanna Behrend, discusses marxist literary criticism in the l930s, and argues that it was more meaningful on various fronts than its own critics have allowed. Ralph Fox's book The Novel and the People led the way, and attracted attention quickly. Christopher Caudwell, Alick West, the Australian Jack Lindsay, Edgell Rickword, are other names that figure here, besides the near-marxist Raymond Williams. The party was never short of literary talent, whatever else it may have lacked — sometimes perhaps common sense.
Mick Wallis's discussion of the pageant, the mass drama, as an aspect of the Popular Front's attempts to arouse public awareness, is so striking that one may wonder whether marxist historians might have done well to put more of their resources into it. Written history has on the whole failed to grip the less well educated (as well as many others, scientists too often). TV may now be doing more than the schoolroom. Hamish Henderson describes the Edinburgh People's Festival of 1951-54, for which he himself did so very much with his ceilidhs and his discoveries of gifted folk-singers. As he says, it did not begin as a challenge to the official Festival, but as an attempt to broaden and enrich it, by bringing it closer to ordinary people. This did not save it from carping foes. To another province belongs a lively account by Robert Radford of a group of graphic artists familiarly known as 'The Three Jameses' — Boswell, Fitton, and Holland; also of James Friell, a poor Glasgow boy who in 1936, at the age of 24, became the Daily Worker's cartoonist, under the nom de guerre of 'Gabriel'.
Three articles which might have been brought closer together relate to music, the art, if not accompanied by words, the least capable of any political significance. Chapter 4, by Richard Hanlon and Mike Waite, discusses party relations with music in the classical tradition, from the setting up in 1936 of the Workers' Music Association. It was joined by a bevy of distinguished composers, who might even join the party — Alan Bush was the most firmly committed to the left. His post-War work was performed more often in East Germany than in Britain, and he had to admit that left-wing music had not had any such impact as left-wing literature in the 1930s. But 'serious' music altogether was steadily losing ground. The same fate befell the left-wing efforts, discussed by Gerald Porter, to revive or adopt the folk-song, of which Alan Lomax, from America, was the most strenuous collector and classifier, and Ewan MacColl, along with A L Lloyd, the most enthusiastic believer in a new future.
There were even attempts to promote a morganatic marriage between communism and jazz. Kevin Morgan traces them from 1933 when the first local jazz club was set up. The grand idea being trumpeted was that jazz must be accepted as 'the music of the proletariat', 'a great people's art form'. But by the 1970s both the old working-class and the party were falling into decline, and bourgeois culture world-wide was, for reasons not unrelated, on a parallel track. 'Pop' poured in to fill the yawning gap. It was accompanied by the Hollywood cinema; between them the pair provided the opponents of progress with their trump cards.
Paul Hogarth adds an afterword, closing with the pregnant words: 'As long as politicians exist there will be the need for radical attitudes and radical artists.'
Judy Kaplan and Linn Shapiro (eds), Red Diapers: Growing Up in the Communist Left, Urbana and Chicago, University of Illinois Press, 1998, ISBN 0 252 02161 4 (hbk); 0 252 06725 8 (pbk) pp320.
This is a wonderful book. Through it we enter a world populated by ordinary people who did extraordinary things in exceptional circumstances as they worked to make the world a better place. The children of these communist parents, the 'red diaper babies', grew up in a milieu shaped by the interaction between their parents' commitment to the cause and the society in which they lived. The forty six memoirs contained in the book provide a vivid picture of the different ways in which they engaged with a rich and creative yet often hostile and frightening environment. Perhaps I should declare an interest, for I, too, was a 'child of the revolution'.  However, although I spent my teens growing up in cold war England, these American children mostly lived through the altogether more threatening witch-hunt of McCarthyite America.
As the editors state in their loving and insightful introduction, '[f]or those in the CP milieu, the personal has always been political' (p9). The authors of virtually all the memoirs comment on how from a very early age they sensed that their families lived in very different ways and had very different values from their neighbours and their school friends. Indeed, a common theme running through the book is how as children they came to espouse, accept or find ways of dealing with their parents' values while becoming part of their peer group and developing a rooted sense of their own identity in a more or less hostile world.
Despite the palpable sense of difference, some authors did not know that their parents were communists until as adults they asked them — it was apparently party policy not to tell children since they might talk (p271). Others knew but were warned not to tell anyone. A few knew and were open about it, arguing things out with their friends, neighbours and relatives. Almost all, however, grew up in a rich social and cultural environment made up of like-minded families, left wing labour halls, fraternal orders and community groups, folk-singing clubs, drama groups and progressive summer camps.
Of the thirty eight memoirs from which I was able to form a view of how the authors now see their childhood, twenty two are positive, ten ambiguous and six negative, in one or two cases strongly so. Among the factors that may have influenced their feelings appear to have been the extent to which parents were open and talked with their children, the more general quality of parenting and the severity of the McCarthyite persecution. Leading communists were subject to routine arbitrary arrest under the Smith Act and held until punitively high bail bonds had been raised. The passionately fought campaign to save the Rosenbergs eventually failed and they were executed. The memoirs record heart-rending accounts of deeply frightened children worried that their parents might meet the same fate.
Yet overall what emerges is how proud the children were of their parents, of their humane values, their commitment, their bravery. Many of the 'commies' accused of un-American activities were from immigrant backgrounds and tried desperately to assimilate, to be Americans. They saw themselves as defending the Constitution and working to further the values enshrined in it — organising workers, fighting racism, opposing inequality and oppression. Although in different ways, the children for the most part absorbed the radical values of their parents and became progressive political activists of one sort or another — labour organisers, participants in the peace and anti-Vietnam War movement, civil rights workers. Many ended up in education, passing on the humane values of their parents, and often also their grandparents, in a new context.
Some, however, rejected their heritage. In part, this seems to have been because their parents were so taken up by the cause, possibly as a result of their own difficult personal histories, that they had little time to spare for their children. More generally, however, it seems to have been associated with different and changing perceptions of the Soviet Union. For the first generation of communists the Bolshevik Revolution represented the hope for the future. My mother, an American born to working class immigrant parents, was fond of telling whoever would listen of how she, at the age of six, first heard about the revolution from her mother: 'Frieda, this is a wonderful day. The workers have taken power in Russia. People like us!'
Most communists came to the party as a result of their first hand experience of capitalist reality, saw the Soviet Union as being in the forefront of the international movement for a better world, and developed a fierce loyalty to it. The process of coming to terms with the mounting evidence of the Stalinist terror, the absence of democracy and the growth of a privileged ruling stratum was not easy and some never made it. While many of the parents who figure in these memoirs left the party in 1956, after Khrushchev's secret speech, they mainly continued their life's work in other ways, as did their children. Some parents, however, for whatever reasons, were unable to distance themselves from the Soviet Union and this may have been one factor which contributed to their children's rejection not only of the Soviet experience but also of their parents' rich legacy of struggle for a better America.
Several of the authors, recalling the ubiquitous presence of the FBI, in later years obtained access to their files under the Freedom of Information Act. What they discovered was a largely banal record of meetings and events that they had attended and lists of those who had been there, with an obsessive interest in the racial composition of those present. Little, if anything, was found in the files arising from the weeks and months when they had been continuously followed by FBI agents observing every aspect of their daily lives. One of the authors raises the question of what, therefore, all that surveillance had been about and answers: 'We were experiencing and internalizing state terror, an American version of totalitarianism. ... They were trying to put the fear of police power in the minds of the people they spied on. To a large degree, it worked' (p174).
The memoir that made me laugh most is an extract from a novel based on the author's childhood experiences. A young boy is present at his parents' 'Party party' held to collect money for the 'Smith Act Defense Fund'. Tiring of the adults he joins his sister and her friend to play 'Party Meetings'. Sister is 'Org. Sec.' and 'Lit. Org.', friend is 'Sec. Org.' (chair), and little brother is consigned the dolls as part of the rank and file. After dues collection, literature sales and reports on work in 'Mass Orgs.', the meeting turns to 'Problems and Questions'. That evening it is the turn of the 'Negro Question' and the boy is asked to give the report. He states that things are getting much better as there are now more 'Negroes' on major league baseball teams than ever before. '"He's left deviationist and right opportunist both at the same time," said Vera. "Clear cause for expulsion," said Simone. "Out" shouted Vera, pointing to the door.' (pp136-8) Children use their experience creatively in play. It is one of the ways in which values are transformed and live on.
Phil Cohen, Children of the Revolution: Communist
Childhood in Cold War Britain, London, Lawrence & Wishart, 1997.
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